Friday, September 07, 2012
The word "lady," part one
Sometimes I feel like I'm the only person in the Midwest who uses the words "woman" and "women" instead of "lady" and "ladies." Am I the only one who learned during the 1980s that "lady" is euphemistic and sexist?
Historically, the terms "lady" and "gentleman" connoted a standard of social behavior and social standing. A “lady,” in particular, was supposed to be modest, pure, clean, asexual, etc. But we don't use the word “gentlemen” in our daily speech. We use “men,” which is a straight-forward, free, unmarked, unsentimental word. Why didn’t the U.S. make a similar shift to the word “women?”
I believe it's because Americans don’t like to think of our females as free and unsentimental. A man can be any kind of man, but we prefer a woman to "act like a lady," with certain expectations of dress and behavior. Using the word “ladies” when we’re not using the equivalent term “gentlemen” reflects our sexist double standard of behavior. I'm a woman, unmarked and free, but each time someone refers to me as a "lady" I feel hemmed in by expectations of ladylike behavior: for example "ladies" don't use cuss words, sit with their knees apart, burp in public or make their sexual desires clear. None of those protocols appeal to me, so please don't bother calling me a "lady."
But if you're one of those people who only feels comfortable calling women “ladies, ” then at least be consistent about also calling men “gentlemen.” Belief in equality is reflected in using equal terms for females and males, such as talking about "men and women," or “girls and boys,” if everyone’s under the age of 18 (referring to women as "girls" when we don't call men "boys" is also hypocritical and offensive).
My Midwestern friends are bewildered by these views. They think "ladies" is a perfectly innocent word that's respectful and polite. I'm the odd one out on this one, probably because I came of age in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1980s. But I can't control my emotional reaction to being called a "lady" when I know "ladylike" conduct does not reflect who I am. And it's especially hard for me to hear the terms "men" and "ladies" used as if they're equivalent.
I'm a woman: strong, equal to men and not afraid to be "impolite." If we're not using the word "gentlemen" with equal frequency, I don't see a good reason to use the heavily marked, socially restrictive word "ladies." Now please click here: The word "lady," part two.